Three weeks after the untimely death of her parents, run over on a San Francisco sidewalk by a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl with no driver’s license, Samantha went on a blind date arranged by Match.com.
Always cold lately, she drove with gloves on now, and the linings were soaked through by the time she found the house. She drove the block over and over, trying to think of a good reason not to go in.
Since the accident, since the loss, every moment before something happened had become unbearable. The moment before it was her turn at the grocery store, the moment before a television show started, the moment before she could hear who was on the other end of the phone filled her with an incredible void of emotion coupled with a crippling anxiety. This was the granddaddy of before moments and the quick knock on the door, with a still gloved hand, was the equivalent of being thrown into ice water. The moment after, however, was somehow worse. Mickey shook her hand, introduced himself, kissed her cheek, and she entered the living room.
Stewart was large and sudden, without any real form. As she took him in, aware she was staring, it was his grin that threw her the most. Was he smiling? His tongue jumped in and out of his mouth, making gasping, silly noises and his head, complete with helmet, lolled from one side of his neck to the other.
“This…is Stewart.” Mickey said, placing his hand on the back of the wheelchair. Was it a wheelchair? Wheelchairs were what one got wheeled into hospitals in. They were just chairs, with wheels. This seemed different. It was bright blue, to begin with, and instead of two large wheels it had four small ones, like a grocery cart. The seat was set on top of a large, metal, frame, and seemed molded, Samantha guessed, to Stewart’s feeble body. His arms and legs were long, but splayed in all directions, and the urge Samantha’s mind inflicted on her was to pull a string, probably located in the child’s back, and pull him back together. Instead his feet, hands, and elbows seemed to be responding to Stewart’s impulses, which were to thrust and nudge the air randomly.
“Hello, Stewart,” said Samantha, and she felt as though she was saying “hello” to someone’s imaginary friend.
“I thought Stewart could sit with us while we eat. Rachel, my daughter, will be home later, but I don’t think she’ll be joining us.”
“Oh.” He had said in an email at one point, that he had children, but Samantha had assumed that he had sired children, and that they lived somewhere else, with their mother most likely.
Two children: one in a wheelchair, and one old enough to be out at seven at night by herself and willfully skipping dinner.
“Can I help?” she offered, hopefully. Get me out of this room, she begged.
“Oh, no. No thank you. It’s all almost ready. Can I get you a drink? I’ve got to heat up Stewart’s dinner anyway.”
“Sure. Do you have, like, a merlot?”
“I can do better than like a merlot. I think I can come up with the real thing.” Samantha felt like she had gotten huge in the last five minutes, and her tongue was the largest part of her. Mickey was the one who should be feeling self conscious, but he was gliding on air, not missing a beat, and if this was them sparring, he was winning.
“Thank you,” she admitted, and sat down on the couch. Now Stewart was across from her, as though the two of them had been left to get acquainted, and the sound he made was closest to clicking, with some groaning, and his foot seemed dangerously close to kicking the table. If Mickey hadn’t been in the next room Samantha would have made this a funny moment, the way she did when someone would thrust a newborn into her arms and leave her alone.
If it were a boy she’d comment on the size of his balls, still gigantic from his mother’s hormones. If it were a girl she’d tell her to watch out for boys with large balls. She didn’t even know if Stewart could understand her. Maybe he had, what was it? Not autism, but the other one. Palsy? Cerebral palsy? Weren’t kids with that still able to communicate? Did Stewart see and know? Would he try to talk? If she just kept looking toward the bookshelf everything would be all right. Where was that drink? The last time she had talked to her mother, she had been drunk on wine. The conversation remained a happy blur, and only spots of physical and emotional sensation remained when she tried to think about it, and she had the frustration of someone trying to remember a dream. She had been drinking red wine often for the three weeks after the accident, in hopes of triggering something and making it back to that cozy sleep-state.
There was a brief clatter from the kitchen, and then she could hear the microwave going off, a distant and distinct “swish…mmmmmmm” and with her foot she counted the beats it might take for the bell to go off, and surely after that Mickey would be back. Stewart struggled against the restraints in his chair. They were seat belt-like, crossing over his sunken chest and meeting at his crotch.
“Mmmaaaa. Maaaa,” he clicked and groaned. Samantha felt her face flinching and glancing towards him, and then away. Was he having a fit? If so, it would be bad to look. Was he talking? Did she need to listen? She looked, and then looked away. Jesus.
“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” Mickey called out, suddenly. Samantha tugged at her shirt sleeves, un-tucking the fabric from her soaked pits.
“Oh, no. Well, a little. It wasn’t clear if that was a white house or a church at the intersection. I get lost a lot, so it’s actually a miracle that I’m here at all.” Mickey re-appeared holding both a glass of red wine and a baby bottle, sans nipple, full of formula.
“Here you go. Just like a merlot.” He set the glass down and turned his attention to Stewart. “And here you go, buddy.”
He called him “Buddy” just like you would a normal ten year old, one with a little league cap and a collection of Transformers. Stewart chose that moment to coo, almost like a baby. Samantha felt relieved, because this was a sound she recognized. This was the sound of delight, of happiness. However, would Mickey now feed Stewart like he was an infant, suckling at the bottle, splayed in Mickey’s arms? That was a bit much, perhaps.
He didn’t. Instead he pulled an enormous syringe out of his pocket, comically large, like something Wile E. Coyote would order from Acme. There was no needle, just the medicine part, and this, apparently, got attached to a long, skinny, tube that snaked out of Stewart’s stomach.
Samantha regarded the books on the shelf.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Is that about the writer?” She asked.
Mickey chuckled lightly as he plugged the end of the syringe in and began filling it with formula.
“No, it’s a play by Edward Albee. It’s a little heavy. Do you like Elizabeth Taylor?”
Samantha shrugged. She didn’t really watch old movies and Liz Taylor had become, as far as Samantha was concerned, not much more than a punch line about marriage as well as a strange old lady who sometimes appeared on Larry King Live.
“Well, she’s in the film version, along with Richard Burton. They were married in real life. It’s a play about marriage, about mutual destruction, and also about the need to create fantasy when everything else is lost.”
“Huh.” Her mind went, after this revelation, to the fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, terrified and driven, feeling the mighty machine direct itself against the traffic and then onto the sidewalk, and through the bodies of her parents. There was a long pause, and Mickey finally gave in.
“So, tell me, what’s it like working at Petco?” Samantha didn’t have much to say about her job. Her time at Petco, she’s told herself, is just a time of self reflection.
“It’s a job, that’s all. I stock things. I help the groomers. I clean. It’s really nothing. Like, you have a real job, with a real future. It’s not the same.”
“I worked odd jobs when I was getting my first Masters’ degree. It’s good experience. I figure if I could wait tables I could certainly stay up all night writing code for Microsoft or Google, right?”
“Do you work for Microsoft? Or Google?”
“No, but I’ve had offers, and sometimes do freelance work for them. Google has been offering me a job almost every year, but my ex-wife lives in this area, and I like having the kids with me.” He topped off Stewart’s syringe and then tucked it next to his shoulder, forcing it between Stewart’s body and his soft chair. That done, he stood and grabbed the handles of the wheelchair, turning the child away from Samantha and headed towards the door into the next room. Samantha took this as her cue to follow him, and the three of them entered the kitchen.
The tray of shish kabobs and two place settings, complete with napkin rings with matching napkins laid out, looked so much like home, like life, that Samantha was startled. Stewart was wheeled in-between the two chairs, and seemed to be holding court over the table, over the two players, settling across from each other. Mickey refilled Samantha’s glass, and put a napkin on his lap, inviting, with a single gesture, for her to start.
Trouble sounded at the front door, making the dishes jump just an inch.
“Shit. Hey, dad!?”
Mickey looked up, fork and wooden spear in hand, ready to scrape pork and green peppers onto his plate. Stewart seemed to Samantha also be a bit jogged. His arms flew out in opposite directions, almost hugging the air, slowly coming together, as his eyes rolled towards each other and then back. His grin trembled and then a line of drool fell from his chin onto his seat belt. Samantha knew she wouldn’t be able to clean that up, not ever. She swallowed twice.
“Dad?” A young woman appeared in the doorway, achingly beautiful in the way that young girls must be, however hard they try not to.
If only I had known, thought Samantha. If only I had known.
“Rachel. Hi. I thought you were staying out.”
“Sorry. I thought you were taking Stewart to that bubble thing.”
“No, that’s tomorrow afternoon. Do you want to join us for kabobs?”
Say no, thought Samantha. Say no and then go to your room and cut your skin or listen to your ipod or whatever it is teenagers do these days. Stewart’s body pushed and moved until there was a gurgle from his feeding tube, some of his dinner coming back into the syringe in a milkshake-like burst.
“Kabobs? Yeah, that’ll work.” Taking off her Wonder Woman hoodie, revealing several large, colorful tattoos, Rachel kicked her way into the seat, first hitting the chair, and then two of the table legs with her oversized boots.
Tattoos? Samantha did the math as fast as she could. Mickey claimed to be thirty-four, and if this girl was eighteen, which would mean he had her when he was…fifteen? Rachel scratched at her arm, parts of a leopard tattoo coming off on her fingernail. Samantha stared a little longer than she meant to, and Rachel caught her glance.
“I’m Rachel.” She stuck out her jelly bracelet adorned arm.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Rachel, this is Samantha.”
“Right.” Rachel swung her boot so that it hit the center pedestal, rattling the plates and making Stewart, yet again, hug the air with his sweeping, creepy limbs.
“Nice to meet you,” Samantha helped herself to a third glass of merlot. Rachel began emptying kabobs onto her plate with great enthusiasm.
“I was going to go to that fucking movie tonight, the one with the subtitles, over at the college, but Sandy was telling me her boyfriend was kicked out of the auditorium there for smoking? And I was like, that’s bullshit. Right? Like, what the fuck? Like, who goes to those fucking movies, anyway? Or whatever. Whatever, right? Anyway, so we’re driving past the campus, trying to decide whether to go, and Mom calls…” Mickey’s eyes darted between the two, between Samantha and Rachel, and his glass was all the way in front of his face, ready. “And she’s all talking about how she needs me to come over this weekend, and the backyard needs mowing, and the cat is out and all this shit. I’m like, ‘I’m at Dad’s house this weekend, and you can wait your fucking turn.’ And she’s like ‘I’m your mother.’ And then she starts talking about how the coffee maker is broken and that you need to buy her another one…”
“She needs to buy her own coffee maker, Rachel.” Mickey sounded tired, suddenly, and sadly began combing through his kabob, breaking green peppers into thirds and then into fourths.
“I know. Shit, dad. Anyway. So she’s talking about the coffee maker, and Sandy is calling her boyfriend, and then she tells him that she and I are coming over and then all of a sudden it’s like, an issue for him. Like me coming over is going to ruin everything. Like I’m not supposed to come over, or whatever.” A skull and cross boned embossed wrist shot past Samantha’s line of vision and came back with the half empty merlot bottle. Drinking? Was she drinking?
“One glass, Rachel,” Mickey murmured.
“I know. You don’t have to show off for your girlfriend, or whatever.” Instinctively Samantha turned toward Stewart for an out. Stewart was struggling, this time inside himself, with some sudden discomfort that made his face turn red and his eyes pop out. Did he eat a kabob when we weren’t looking? Samantha wondered.
“Shit,” Mickey cursed, throwing down his napkin, and grabbing for the syringe now full of rejected formula. “Rachel, you’re being too loud.”
“Fuck. He’s fine. Dad, he does that all the time. Anyway, I’m not supposed to come over to this guy’s house, and I tell Sandy that he’s acting like a retard, like seriously, and she tells me to shut up, that she’s on the phone, and mom starts seriously screaming at me…”
“You shouldn’t use that word, Rachel.” Mickey began wiping down Stewart, and the chair, both covered in…puke? Samantha doubted that’s actually what it was.
“Okay, he’s being stupid. Is that better?” Rachel sneered, her nose in her glass, tipping it back. The devil playing cards on her shoulder peaked out of her short sleeve.
“Did those hurt?” Samantha asked, weakly.
“She’s not allowed to get a real tattoo until she’s eighteen, and out of the house,” Mickey answered for his daughter from the sink. He then put both lips on the inside of the syringe and blew as hard as he could, causing the formula and whatever else there was, to shoot out of the tube into the drain.
“This is what I’m going to get, though,” Rachel turned up her sleeves to show Samantha the devil playing cards, the panther on her forearm, and a spider web on her elbow. “I also want to get, like, the world exploding on the back of my neck. Like, the end times. Oh, and also my name in Greek. I have a friend who knows Greek and he’s, like, designing a tattoo for me like that. I want it on my stomach.” She pulled up her shirt and showed Samantha. “And, maybe, get a garter tattooed on my thigh.”
Samantha nodded mutely. Mickey, after closing the tube in Stewart’s stomach offered Samantha more wine, posing the bottle over her glass, meeting her eyes.
“I’ve got to piss,” Rachel swung herself around in the chair, grabbed the back and hoisted herself towards the hallway. Samantha swallowed and looked up at Mickey, still standing with the wine bottle.
“You know, I have to go to the bathroom too. Is there another one?” Mickey, fumbling with the label, picking at it and pushing it back into place, nodded towards the stairs.
“It’s through the bedroom, which is the third door of the left.” Samantha climbed the stairs and knocked, in spite of herself, on the bedroom door. It was, of course, neat as a pin. The bed was made, and Stewart’s bed (crib?) was on the far side of the room. A machine on a pole stood next to it, and a light machine sat on the nightstand in between the two. It looked, to Samantha, like the bedroom in Leave it to Beaver, the two boys forced to grow and mature together, at different stages, in the same room.
In the bathroom, also neat, white, trim, orderly except for the feeding bag, drying out and hanging from the shower head, filling the room with the smell of watery milk. Samantha ran the water, flushed the toilet, and found the Clonazepam on the top shelf next to a red pill crusher. It must have to be made into powder, Samantha considered as she swallowed two, and then washed her hands, wondering about the size of the hole in her mother’s body, the size of the time it took before they both died, and what that must have done to the girl, who also spoke no English. She would have cried, and waved her hands in front of her face, trying to push the crowd away from her. She would have needed a moment, like Samantha was taking in the bathroom, to do some ill-gotten drugs and compose herself. The sun, making everything very hot, even for California, would have confused things and made it hard for her to explain that it was just a mistake, just a misstep, just something that happened too quickly.
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